Riverwards Produce, a trendy grocer in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, has touted itself for cutting out the middleman — thus lowering the price of its fruits and vegetables — and earned locals’ acclaim for its organic fare and family-like vibe.

Even with a store of just 1,700 square feet, Vincent Finazzo, Riverwards’ owner, said he managed to pull in robust sales as panic mounted over the coronavirus and neighbors flocked to stock up on his wares. His shop recorded $35,100 in sales last Friday — three to four times more than a typical day — then $30,600 the next day. Sales dropped Sunday to $9,656.90.

“It was the busiest day in the history of the company,” he said about last Friday. “It was absolute chaos.”

But even with the strong sales figures, profit margins were in the single digits, he said.

Vince Finazzo, owner of Riverwards, holds a box of Satsuma Mandarins at Riverwards Produce in Philadelphia on Jan. 18, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Vince Finazzo, owner of Riverwards, holds a box of Satsuma Mandarins at Riverwards Produce in Philadelphia on Jan. 18, 2019.

His 33 employees interacted with a flood of customers over three days. After the weekend, he said, 16 workers submitted a “letter with signatures on it” — employees called it a petition — that requested an extra $5 in hazard pay beyond their hourly wage, which started at $15. On Wednesday morning, Finazzo called and emailed 21 of his employees to let them know he had laid them off.

“Business conditions and employee safety necessitates this layoff," the letter read. "This layoff action is indefinite in duration and should be considered permanent.” The letter included two links that explained unemployment compensation and how to file for it.

He now has 12 employees left. Those employees have since received an extra $3 an hour as hazard pay.

Finazzo, who confirmed he had sent the letter, said he made the decision to lay off staff after he calculated his store’s financial situation and determined that its “labor model is not sustainable.”

“I was literally shaking and in tears," he said, "and I felt horrible, but I had to do it to stay open.”

He posted on Instagram to inform the public of the layoffs.

“It was the most difficult thing I have ever done: All of these people have been family to all of us who remain,” the post read. “But reducing the cost of floor staff was the only way to ensure that we could keep our doors open for the next two months in a way that keeps our primary promise of delivering quality food at a reasonable price to our customers.”

He emphasized that he laid off employees and did not fire them for cause, and that an accusation that he fired his workers was “borderline defamation.”

“There’s a pretty clear correlation" between signing the petition and suddenly being laid off, said Ryan Kim, 20, a cashier who signed the petition and is now out of a job.

“I think at most we expected him to say no — to deny the request for hazard pay — but we felt that it was worth it to try and assert what we feel we deserve as workers who are putting our health on the line," Kim said Thursday, adding that those who were now out of work are part of a newly organized group, the Riverwards Employee Coalition. It has pushed back against Finazzo’s actions and started an online fund-raiser to help support its laid-off workers.

The coalition, which has created an account on Instagram, posted a chart showing the meteorically high sales figures from last weekend. Finazzo confirmed those numbers were correct.

“I don’t think at this point any of us want to go back given how awful this has been and proven we’re not really cared for," said Kim, a former barista at Menagerie Coffee in Old City. “I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, I just personally want to open up a dialogue about workers’ rights in Philadelphia.”

Finazzo said his decision to lay off most of his employees was solely for safety and business survival and not as retaliation for workers signing the petition. Four workers who signed the petition remain at the store, he said.

The store’s vendors were canceling shipments amid the outbreak and that “with all the info I had to date with sales decreasing and vendors having supply issues,” layoffs were “the most sustainable choice."

He also had workers’ safety in mind, he said, after the Trump administration announced Monday that no more than 10 people should gather in public places. Finazzo said he then implemented that practice at his store. He limited the number of customers and employees at Riverwards to five each.

“There is no connection between the letter and the layoffs," Finazzo said.

Konstantine Fomin loads produce through the front door of Riverwards Produce in Philadelphia, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. The owner had to lay off most of his staff to stay in business.
JESSICA GRIFFIN
Konstantine Fomin loads produce through the front door of Riverwards Produce in Philadelphia, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. The owner had to lay off most of his staff to stay in business.

The laid-off workers, who include cashiers, produce stockers, and managers, had no benefits at Riverwards. Finazzo said they would get no severance pay. He had not, he said, considered decreasing employees’ pay to avoid layoffs.

“I strongly believe that’s a living wage," he said, referring to his minimum wage of $15, but noted managers and buyers can make up to $20 an hour.

He said he had always tried to treat his workers well, but that “being a boss is in this climate right now is extremely difficult.”

After the layoffs Wednesday, he said he had been lambasted online to the point that he disabled commenting on the Instagram post announcing the layoffs.

“I really felt like I was being attacked not only on Instagram, but my personal cell phone," he said, adding Friday that he received a message from a person hoping Finazzo would contract coronavirus. “I had strange numbers texting me and calling me names. I had emails telling me to burn in hell.”